Penang Hokkien
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Penang Hokkien
Penang Hokkien
Pin-siânn/P?-néeng Hok-kiàn-u? (Tâi-lô)
Pin-siâ?/P?-nng Hok-kiàn-?a (POJ)
Native toMalaysia
RegionPenang, parts of Kedah, Perak and Perlis
Latin (Modified Tâi-lô & Pe?h-?e-j?, ad hoc methods)
Chinese Characters (Traditional)
Language codes
Penang Hokkien
Traditional Chinese
Tâi-lôPin-siânn Hok-kiàn-u?
Alternative name
Traditional Chinese
Tâi-lôP?-néeng Hok-kiàn-u?
A Penang Hokkien speaker, recorded in Malaysia.

Penang Hokkien (traditional Chinese: ; simplified Chinese: ; Tâi-lô: Pin-siânn Hok-kiàn-u?; Pe?h-?e-j?: Pin-siâ? Hok-kiàn-?a, [pinã hoki?nua?]) is a local variant of Hokkien spoken in Penang, Malaysia. It is the lingua franca among the majority Chinese population in Penang, as well as the neighbouring states of Kedah, Perlis and northern part of Perak. This Chinese dialect is spoken as a mother tongue by up to 63.9% of Penang's Chinese community.[1] It is also spoken by some members of the Penangite Indian and Malay communities.[2]

Penang Hokkien is a subdialect of Zhangzhou (; Hokkien: Tsiang-tsiu) Chinese, together with widespread use of Malay and English loan words. It is said that it most closely resembles that spoken in the district of Haicang () in Longhai (; Hokkien: Liông-hái) county and in the districts of Jiaomei () and Xinglin () in neighbouring Xiamen prefecture. In Southeast Asia, similar dialects are spoken in the states bordering Penang (Kedah, Perlis and northern Perak), as well as in Medan and North Sumatra, Indonesia. It is markedly distinct from Southern Peninsular Malaysian Hokkien and Taiwanese Hokkien.


Penang Hokkien is largely a spoken language: it is rarely written in Chinese characters, and there is no official standard romanisation. In recent years, there has been a growing body of romanised Penang Hokkien material, however topics are mostly limited to the language itself such as dictionaries and learning materials. This is linked to efforts to preserve, revitalise and promote the language as part of Penang's cultural heritage, due to increasing awareness of the loss of Penang Hokkien usage among younger generations in favour of Mandarin and English. The standard romanisation systems commonly used in these materials are based on Tâi-lô and Pe?h-?e-j? (POJ), with varying modifications to suit Penang Hokkien phonology.

A Char Koay Teow stall. An example of how a Penangite writes Penang Hokkien using ad hoc methods.

The Hokkien Language Association of Penang (Persatuan Bahasa Hokkien Pulau Pinang; ?) is one such organisation which promotes the language's usage and revitalisation. Through their Speak Hokkien Campaign they promote a Tâi-lô based system modified to suit the phonology of Penang Hokkien and its loanwords. This system is used throughout this article and its features are detailed below.

The Speak Hokkien Campaign also promotes the use of traditional Chinese characters derived from recommended character lists for written Hokkien published by Taiwan's Ministry of Education.

Most native-speakers are not aware of these standardised systems and resort to ad hoc methods of romanisation based on English, Malay and Pinyin spelling rules. These methods are in common use for many proper names and food items, e.g. Char Kway Teow ( Tshá-kúe-tiâu). These spellings are often inconsistent and highly variable with several alternate spellings being well established, e.g. Char Koay Teow. These methods, which are more intuitive to the average native-speaker, are the basis of non-standard romanisation systems used in some written material.



  • Unlike other dialects of Hokkien, coronal affricates and fricatives remain the same and do not become alveolo-palatal before /i/, e.g. ? [si].
  • The consonants ⟨f⟩, ⟨d⟩, ⟨r⟩ and ⟨sh⟩ are only used in loanwords.
Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal consonant -m [m]
? (àm)
-n [n]
? (an)
-ng [?]
? (âng)
Stop consonant -p [p?]
? (tap)
-t [t?]
? (sat)
-k [k?]
? (kak)
-h [?]
? (ah)
Syllabic consonant
Bilabial Velar
Nasal m [m?]
? (m?)
ng []
? (sng)


Front Back
Simple Nasal Simple Nasal
Close i [i]
? (i)
inn [?]
? (înn)
u [u]
? (?)
Close-Mid e [e]
o [o]
? (ô)
Open-Mid ee [?]
? (?e)
enn []
? (enn)
oo [?]
? (oo)
onn []
? (onn)
Open a [a]
? (a)
ann [ã]
? (?nn)
Diphthongs & Triphthongs
Diphthong Triphthong
ai [ai]
? (ài)
ia [ia]
? ()
io [io]
? (io)
iu [iu]
? ()
ua [ua]
? (u?)
iau [iau]
? (iau)
au [au]
? (?u)
ia [i?]
? (n)*
ioo [i?]
? (niôo)*
ui [ui]
? (u?)
ue [ue]
? (ue)
uai [uai]
? (uai)
  • In the Tâi-lô system for Penang Hokkien, nasal vowels are indicated using final ⟨-nn⟩, while POJ uses superscript ⟨⟩. Vowel nasalisation also occurs in words that have nasal initials (⟨m-⟩, ⟨n-⟩, ⟨ng-⟩), however, this is not indicated, e.g. ? n?i (/nu?/).
    For most speakers who are not aware of POJ or Tâi-lô, nasalisation is commonly indicated by putting an ⟨n⟩ after the initial consonant of a word. This is commonly seen for the popular Penang delicacy Tau Sar Pneah ( T?u-sa-piánn). In other instances, nasalisation may not be indicated at all, such as in Popiah ( po?h-piánn), or as in the common last name Ooi (? Uînn).
  • The rime ⟨ionn⟩ is a variant pronunciation of ⟨iaunn⟩. The two may be used interchangeably in Penang Hokkien, e.g. ? tiaunn/tionn, ? iâunn/iônn.
  • When ⟨ia⟩ is followed by final ⟨-n⟩ or ⟨-t⟩, it is pronounced [i?], with ⟨ian⟩ and ⟨iat⟩ being pronounced as [i?n] and [i?t?] respectively.
    In speech, these sounds are often reduced to [?n] and [?t?], e.g. ? mián/mén.
  • When ⟨i⟩ is followed by final ⟨-k⟩ or ⟨-ng⟩, it is pronounced as /ek?/ and /e?/ respectively rather than other dialects which will pronounced as [i?k?] and [i] respectively. e.g. ? sik /sek?/.
  • ⟨ioo⟩ is a variant of ⟨io⟩ which is only found with the initial ⟨n-⟩, e.g. ? niôo.
  • Diphthongs <ua> and <au> often romanised as <wa> and <aw> respectively. e.g. ? wá/uá /u?a/, ? kàw/kàu /ka?/.
  • Loanwords with diphthongs <ia> often romanised as <ya>. e.g. sa-yang /sa-ia?/.
Non-native vowels (used in loanwords)
Tâi-lô IPA Example Note
er [?] ber-lian Occurs in Quanzhou accented varieties of Hokkien such as those spoken in Southern Malaysia and Singapore.
Used in Malay and English loanwords.
y [y]
Used in Cantonese loanwords, may be pronounced as ⟨i⟩.
ei [ei]
Used in Cantonese loanwords.
eoi [?y]
An alternate pronunciation of ⟨ue⟩ due to Cantonese influence.
Used in Cantonese loanwords, may be pronounced as ⟨ue⟩.
oi [?i]
Used in Malay, Cantonese and Teochew loanwords.
Replaces ⟨ol⟩ in Malay loanwords, e.g. botol ( bo?t-toi), cendol ( tsian-doi).
ou [ou]
Used in Cantonese and Teochew loanwords.


Vowel(s) Open Nasal Plosive
[-] [] [m] [n] [?] [p?] [t?] [k?] [?]
[a] a
ann am
[ai] ai
ainn aih
[au] au auh
[e] e eng
[?] ee enn em* en* eeng* et* eek* eeh
[?] er* ern* ert* erh*
[ei] ei*
[i] i
inn im
ing* ip
ik* ih
[ia] ia iann iam
iap iak iah
[i?] ian
[iau] iau iaunn
[io] io ioh
[i?] ioo* ionn iong iok
[iu] iu
Vowel(s) Open Nasal Plosive
[-] [] [m] [n] [?] [p?] [t?] [k?] [?]
[o] o um* ung* uk* oh
[?] oo onn om on* ong ot* ok ooh
[?i] oi*
[ou] ou*
[u] u un ut uh
[ua] ua uann uan uang* uat uah
[uai] uai uainn
[ue] ue ueh
[ui] ui uinn
[y] y* yn*
[?y] eoi*
[m?] m -
[] ng -
  • * Used in loanwords, variants and onomatopoeia


In Penang Hokkien, the two Departing tones (3rd & 7th) are virtually identical, and may not be distinguished except in their sandhi forms. Most native speakers of Penang Hokkien are therefore only aware of four tones in unchecked syllables (high, low, rising, high falling), and two Entering tones (high and low) in checked syllables. In most systems of romanisation, this is accounted as seven tones altogether. The tones are:

Penang Hokkien tones[3]
Upper (?) Lower (?)
No. Name TL Contour Sandhied No. Name TL Contour Sandhied
Level (?) 1
a [] (44) [] (21) 5
â [] (23) [] (21)
Rising (?) 2
á [] (53) [] (44) -
[] (445)
Departing (?) 3
à [] (21) [] (53) 7
? [] (21) [] (21)
[] (44)
Entering (?) 4
a? [] (3) [] (4) 8
a [] (4) [] (3)

The names of the tones no longer bear any relation to the tone contours. The (upper) Rising (2nd) tone has two variants in Penang Hokkien, a high falling tone [] (53) and a high rising tone [] (445). The high falling tone [] (53) is more common among the older generations while in the younger generations there has been a shift towards the use of the high rising tone [] (445). When the 3rd tone is sandhied to the 2nd tone, the high falling variant [] (53) is used, however some speakers may sandhi the 3rd tone to the 1st tone [?] (44).[3] As in Amoy and Zhangzhou, there is no lower Rising (6th) tone.

Tone sandhi

Like in other Minnan dialects, the tone of a syllable in Penang Hokkien depends on where in a phrase or sentence the relevant syllable is placed. For example, the word ? in isolation is pronounced with an ascending tone, [] (23), but when it combines with a following syllable, as in gû-bah, it is pronounced with a low tone, [] (21).

The rules which apply when a syllable is placed in front of a connected syllable in standard Minnan, simply put, are as follows:

  • 1st becomes 7th
  • 7th becomes 3rd
  • 3rd becomes 2nd (often sounds like 1st in Penang Hokkien)
  • 2nd becomes 1st
  • 5th becomes 7th

Checked syllables (-h):

  • 4th becomes 2nd (often sounds like 1st in Penang Hokkien)
  • 8th becomes 3rd

Checked syllables (-p,-t,-k):

  • 4th becomes 8th
  • 8th becomes 4th

Although the two departing tones (3rd & 7th) are virtually identical in Penang Hokkien, in their sandhi forms they become [] (53) and [] (21) and are thus easily distinguishable.

The "tone wheel" concept does not work perfectly for all speakers of Penang Hokkien.[4]

Minnan and Mandarin tones

There is a reasonably reliable correspondence between Hokkien and Mandarin tones:

  • Upper Level: Hokkien 1st tone = Mandarin 1st tone, e.g. ? ke/j?.
  • Lower Level: Hokkien 5th tone = Mandarin 2nd tone, e.g. ? lêng/lóng.
  • Rising: Hokkien 2nd tone = Mandarin 3rd tone, e.g. ? bée/m?.
  • Departing: Hokkien 3rd/7th tones = Mandarin 4th tone, e.g. ? thòo/, ? tshi?nn/xiàng.

Words with Entering tones all end with ⟨-p⟩, ⟨-t⟩, ⟨-k⟩ or ⟨-h⟩ (glottal stop). As Mandarin no longer has any Entering tones, there is no simple corresponding relationship for the Hokkien 4th and 8th tones, e.g. ? kok/guó, but ? huat/f?. The tone in Mandarin often depends on what the initial consonant of the syllable is (see the article on Entering tones for details).

Literary and colloquial pronunciations

Hokkien has not been taught in schools in Penang since the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, when Mandarin was made the Chinese national language. As such, few if any people have received any formal instruction in Hokkien, and it is not used for literary purposes. However, as in other variants of Min Nan, most words have both literary and colloquial pronunciations, and the literary pronunciations still appear in limited circumstances, e.g.:

  • in given names (but generally not surnames), e.g. ? an rather than uann, ? gio?k rather than ge?k;
  • in a few surnames, e.g. ? ia?p rather than hio?h
  • in other proper names, e.g. Liông-san-tông rather than Lêng-suann-tn?g
  • in certain set phrases, e.g. tsha-put-to rather than tshee-m?-to, kiàn-siàu rather than kìnn-tshiò

Unlike in Taiwan and mainland China, the literary pronunciations of numbers higher than two are not used when giving telephone numbers, etc.; e.g. j?-g?o-sì instead of j?-ngóo-sù. Literary variants are generally eschewed in favour of colloquial pronunciations, e.g. tu?-o?h instead of t?i-ha?k.

Differences from other Minnan dialects

Although Penang Hokkien is based on the Zhangzhou dialect, which in many cases result from the influence of other Minnan dialects.

  • The use of Zhangzhou pronunciations such as ? muâi (Amoy: ), sin-senn (Amoy: sian-sinn), etc.;
  • The use of Zhangzhou expressions such as thâu-kiong (Amoy? thng-sî)
  • The adoption of pronunciations from Teochew: e.g. ? (Zhangzhou: guá), uang, luang, iang (Zhangzhou and Amoy gún/guán, ? lín, ? () ?n);
  • The adoption of Amoy and Quanzhou pronunciations like pháinn-sè (Zhangzhou: bái/pháinn-sì), ? pah (Zhangzhou: peeh), etc.

General pronunciation differences can be shown as below:

Penang Hokkien Amoy Hokkien Zhangzhou Dialect Example
8th tone [?] (4) 8th tone [?] (4) 8th tone [] (12)
-e -ue -e ?
-ee -e -ee ? hêe
-enn -inn -enn ? senn
-iaunn / -ionn -iunn -ionn ? si?unn
-iong / -iang -iong -iang ? siong
-u -i -i ?
-ue -e -ue ? hué
-ua -ue -ua ? u?
-uinn -ng -uinn ? suinn
j- l- j- ? ji?p


Due to Penang's linguistic and ethnic diversity, Penang Hokkien is in close contact with many other languages and dialects which are drawn on heavily for loanwords.[5] These include Malay, Teochew, Cantonese and English.


Like other dialects in Malaysia and Singapore, Penang Hokkien borrows heavily from Malay, but sometimes to a greater extent than other Hokkien dialects, e.g.:

Penang Hokkien Chinese characters Malay Taiwanese Hokkien Definition Note
?n-ting anting (h?nn-kau) earring
b?-lái balai polis (kíng-tshat-kio?k) police station
b?-lu baru (tú-tsiah) new(ly), just now
báng-kû bangku (í-liâu) stool
bá-tû batu (tsio?h-thâu) stone
b?r-liân berlian (su?n-tsio?h) diamond
b?-n?-tang binatang (t?ng-bu?t) animal (khîm-siù) is also frequently used.
g?-tái gatal ? (tsi?nn) itchy
g?r-lí/gî-lí geli ? (ònn) creepy; hair-raising
jiám-bân jamban (pi?n-sóo) toilet
kan-nang-tsû/kan-lang-tsû kentang (má-lîng-tsû) potato
kau-în/kau-îng kahwin (kiat-hun) marry
kí-siân kesian (khó-liân) pity
l?m-peng lampin (ji?-phè-á) diaper
lô-ti roti (m?-pau) bread
lui ? duit ? (tsînn) money
má-ná mana ? (siánn-mih-sî-ts?n) as if; since when?
m?-nek manik (tsu-á) bead
má-tâ mata-mata (kíng-tshat) police
pá-sat pasar (tshài-tsh?-á) market (b?n-san) is more frequently used which is from English bazaar.
p?ng-gang pinggang ? (io) waist
pún ?/? pun ? (i?) also
l?-sa rasa (kám-kak) to feel
sá-bûn sabun (tê-khoo) soap
sâm-pá sampah (pùn-sò) garbage
sa-iang sayang ? (ài) to love; what a pity
som-bong sombong (sè-l?) snobbish
su-k?/su-kah suka ? (ài) to like
tá-h?n tahan (lím-n?i) endure
ta-pí / tapi (m?-koh) but
to-lóng tolong (tàu-sann-k?ng) help (tàu-sann-k?ng) is also frequently used.
tong-kat tongkat (kuái-á) walking stick
tsi-l?-k? celaka (kai-sí) damn it
tsiám-pó campur ? (tsham) to mix
tua-la tuala (b?n-kin) towel

There are also many Hokkien words which have been borrowed into Malay, sometimes with slightly different meanings, e.g.:

Malay Penang Hokkien Definition Notes
beca (bée-tshia) horse-cart
bihun (bí-hún) rice vermicelli
Jepun (Ji?t-pún) Japan
loteng (lâu-téng) upstairs Originally in Hokkien means attic.
kicap (kê-tsiap) fish sauce Originally in Hokkien means sauce.
kongsi (kong-si) to share Originally in Hokkien means company/firm/clan association.
kuaci (kua-tsí) edible watermelon seeds
kuetiau (kué-tiâu) flat rice noodle
kuih ? (kué) rice-flour cake
mi ? (m?) noodles
sinseh (sin-senn) traditional Chinese doctor
tauhu (ta?-h?) tofu
tauke (thâu-kee) boss
teh ? (têe) tea
teko (têe-kóo) teapot
Tionghua (Tiong-huâ) China/Chinese
tukang (tû-kang) craftsman

Other Chinese varieties

There are words in Penang Hokkien that originated from other varieties of Chinese spoken in and around Malaysia. e.g.:

Penang Hokkien Originated from Definition Note
? (uá) Teochew I; me Originally pronounce as guá in Hokkien but Penang Hokkien uses pronunciation from Teochew.
? (ài) Teochew want
(uá-lâng / uang) Teochew we; us
(lú-lâng / luang) Teochew you guys
(i-lâng / iang) Teochew they; theirs
(bô-piàn) Teochew nothing can be done
? (ngam) Cantonese fit; suitable
(t?i-lôu) Cantonese bro; boss Penang Hokkien uses pronunciation from Cantonese.
(kín-tsiong) Cantonese nervous Compound word Hokkien ? (kín) + Cantonese ?(zoeng1).
(môu-lêi-th?u) Cantonese makes no sense From Cantonese (mou4 lei4 tau4).
(tsý-tshiông-fân) Cantonese chee cheong fun Penang Hokkien uses pronunciation from Cantonese.
(sa?p-sa?p-sêoi) Cantonese piece of cake Penang Hokkien uses pronunciation from Cantonese.
(sí-p?e) Singaporean Hokkien very Originated from Teochew (si2-bê6) and adopted from Singaporean Hokkien (sí-p?).
(uá-l?u-ê) Singaporean Hokkien oh my god; oh no


Penang Hokkien has also borrowed some words from English, some of which may have been borrowed via Malay, but these tend to be more technical and less well embedded than the Malay words, e.g. brake, park, pipe, pump, etc.


Penang Hokkien also contains words whjch are thought to come from Thai.

Penang Hokkien Definition Other Hokkien Note
?/? pua?t 1/100 of a unit of currency
i.e. 10 sen/cents
e.g. 50 sen /? g?o-pua?t
? kak Etymology ultimately unknown but thought to come from Thai baht.


In recent years, a number of movies that incorporate the use of Penang Hokkien have been filmed, as part of wider efforts to preserve the dialect's relevance.[6] Among the more recent movies are The Journey, which became the highest-grossing Malaysian film in 2014, and You Mean the World to Me, the first movie to be filmed entirely in Penang Hokkien.

See also


  1. ^ The open-mid front unrounded vowel /?/ is a feature of Zhangzhou Hokkien, from which Penang Hokkien is derived. Tâi-lô records this vowel as ⟨ee⟩. It is much less commonly written in Pe?h-?e-j? as it has merged with ⟨e⟩ in mainstream Taiwanese and Amoy Hokkien. However it may be written as a distinct vowel in Pe?h-?e-j? using ⟨?⟩ or ⟨e?⟩ (with a dot above right, by analogy with ⟨o?⟩).


  1. ^ "Dialects and Languages in Numbers". Dialects and Languages in Numbers. Retrieved .
  2. ^ Mok, Opalyn (14 July 2015). "Saving the Penang Hokkien language, one word at a time". Malay Mail. Archived from the original on 2019-04-10.
  3. ^ a b Chuang, Ching-ting; Chang, Yueh-chin; Hsieh, Feng-fan (2013). "Complete and not-so-complete tonal neutralization in Penang Hokkien". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ "Penang Hokkien Tones"
  5. ^ de Gijzel, Luc (2009). English-Penang Hokkien Pocket Dictionary. George Town, Penang: Areca Books. ISBN 978-983-44646-0-8.
  6. ^ Loh, Arnold. "Shooting to begin for first Penang Hokkien film - Nation | The Star Online". Retrieved .

Further reading

  • Douglas, The Rev. Carstairs (1899) [1873]. Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy, with the Principal Variations of the Chang-chew and Chin-chew Dialects (2nd corrected ed.). London: Publishing Office of the Presbyterian Church of England. ISBN 1-86210-068-3., bound with Barclay, The Rev. Thomas (1923). Supplement to Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy. Shanghai: Commercial Press Ltd.
  • de Gijzel, Luc (2009). English-Penang Hokkien Pocket Dictionary. George Town, Penang: Areca Books. ISBN 978-983-44646-0-8.

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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